Businesses across the Chippewa Valley and Wisconsin were scrambling Tuesday to respond to the Safer at Home order imposed by Gov. Tony Evers to curtail the spread of the new coronavirus.
The order, which will go into effect at 8 a.m. today, calls for closing nonessential businesses, banning gatherings of any size and imposing monthlong travel restrictions.
“Folks need to start taking this seriously,” Evers said when announcing the new restrictions.
The goal of the closures and limitations, which is similar to orders issued in many other states, is to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic so doctors and nurses won’t get overwhelmed with patients.
“If we do them well, they’re going to seem like tremendous overreactions,” Dr. Ryan Westergaard, Wisconsin’s chief medical officer for communicable diseases, said of the order. “That’s really our goal.”
Evers’ order has numerous exceptions but was designed to severely curtail movement around the state and force people to stay at home.
Lots of questions
“We’re getting a lot of inquiries from local businesses about what this means,” said David Minor, president of the Eau Claire Area Chamber of Commerce. “People are worried, they’re concerned, but they’re not overreacting at this time.”
Minor said the governor is doing what he thinks is in the best interest of the whole state.
“We now have to react to what the governor has done, and we as a business organization have to figure out how to get everybody through this as best we can,” Minor said.
As the operator of a business deemed nonessential, Frank Irvine, owner of the Play It Again Sports franchise in Eau Claire, said the order means the store will lock its doors beginning this morning, although he hopes to continue doing some curbside delivery of exercise equipment and to start doing online sales.
Traffic in the store was down lately, but it had continued to do brisk sales of fitness equipment since previous coronavirus-related restrictions closed gyms, Irvine said.
“We’ll be following the rules, but nobody can afford to shut down for 30 days,” said Irvine, who already feels “terrible” he has been forced to cut staffing and hours.
Details owner Mickey Judkins closed the Eau Claire clothing store on Friday and continues to operate the detailsdirect.com online version to sustain the business. The scaling down means the business is down to a skeleton crew and some of her employees are filing for unemployment.
Despite those painful moves, Judkins said, “I completely support the governor’s decisive action to stop the escalation of this virus. However, I hope that we can address the economic impacts in a smart way that helps us all recover financially.”
As the economy’s No. 1 job creators, small businesses must be helped to weather the crisis, she said.
It will be up to local law enforcement to make sure people are obeying the new restrictions, which are set to run through April 24, although the timeline could be altered.
Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese said Tuesday local officials would begin with education and, if necessary, follow up with enforcement.
“We are taking it seriously,” Giese said. “It’s not our expectation that people will be pulled over actively to check why they are traveling. The expectation is travel is being done only for reasons indicated in the order. There is no requirement in the order that people carry with them any indication in paper that they’re an essential worker or an essential business … Our Wisconsin order does not include an order to carry a piece of paper with you when you’re out of your house.”
Evers defended the increasing closures and limitations on movement when asked during a conference call if it was worth the cost to the economy.
“Obviously we want a strong economy. Who the hell doesn’t?” Evers said. “But we have to value a human life at a higher level. I think we can do both and that’s what this order is all about.”
But Republicans were becoming increasingly critical. State Sen, Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, called on Evers to give more justification for the order and to present a plan to get the state working again.
“We cannot shut down life,” Stroebel said. “A prolonged shutdown will be ruinous to Wisconsin small businesses, our economy and Wisconsinites’ quality of life.”
In response to assertions by some people that the order is extreme, Giese said, “This is the logical next step in our public health measure in order to control disease.”
Following the rules
Evers ordered Wisconsin residents to stay at home, with exceptions for essential work, activities and limited travel. He said people could still go outside to walk and ride bikes, but he ordered all playgrounds closed and barred team sports such as basketball, soccer and football.
All public and private gatherings of any number of people who are not in the same family or living unit are prohibited. Evers previously limited gatherings to no more than 10 people.
Anyone who leaves home is required to maintain a 6-foot distance from other people as part of the social distancing effort that health officials say is the only effective way to slow the spread of the virus.
“This is hard,” said state Department of Health Services Secretary Andrea Palm, who asked residents to limit their contacts to five total people. “Humans are social beings and we are not wired this way. ... We are going to need each other to get through this.”
Businesses allowed to remain open include hospitals and other health care facilities; grocery stores; bars and restaurants offering delivery and carryout food only; child care facilities; post offices; airports and other businesses offering essential services; pharmacies; gas stations; banks and other financial institutions; laundries and dry cleaners; hardware stores; churches and places of worship; funeral homes; and media outlets.
Critical construction work, including plumbers, electricians, carpenters and janitors, were also exempted. Professional services, including lawyers, accountants and insurance agents, were exempted but encouraged to work from home.
Evers previously ordered K-12 public and private schools to close. The order now mandates that all places of public amusement and activity close, including swimming pools, water parks, aquariums, arcades, museums, zoos, children’s play centers, bowling alleys, movie theaters, concert venues, country clubs, social clubs, gyms and fitness centers.
The order will result in an extremely short season-opening stint for at least one Eau Claire golf course. Mill Run Golf Course took advantage of temperatures in the 50s Tuesday, following its normal pattern of opening as soon as turf and weather conditions permit.
Though general manager Tim Klauck recognized that golf courses could be included in the impending stay-at-home order, he and other state operators remained hopeful, before details of the governor’s order emerged, that Wisconsin would follow Ohio’s lead in exempting golf courses from a similar stay-at-home order.
In addition to taking extra steps to sanitize the clubhouse and limit the number of people inside the building to 10 or less, Mill Run also raised the cups above the surface of the greens so the more than four dozen players didn’t have to touch the cups or the flags as they played.
Under such conditions, Klauck said he hoped golf would be seen as a healthy outdoor option not unlike going for a walk. Instead, he plans to follow the order and close the course again today.
The state Department of Workforce Development responded promptly Tuesday by announcing that job centers across the state will be closed to the public starting today to help contain the spread of COVID-19 and follow the governor’s emergency order. Services to the public will remain available online and by phone.
Residents of Barron, Chippewa, Clark, Dunn, Eau Claire, Pepin, Pierce, Polk, and St. Croix counties in west-central Wisconsin can call 715-836-5156 for assistance. Residents of Buffalo, Jackson and Trempealeau counties can call 608-789-5627.